A citizens’ convention made up of randomly selected members of the French public voted Feb. 19 in favor of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, including for minors, preparing the way for the drafting of new “end of life” legislation.
The 184-member council was convened by French President Emmanuel Macron to debate “end of life” issues after the government’s National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE) issued an opinion Sept. 13, 2022, favorable to legalizing assisted suicide.
For three months the convention debated the question, “Is the framework for end-of-life support adapted to the different situations encountered or should changes be introduced?” At the end of debate, 84% of the members of the citizens’ council agreed that the current legal framework does not respond to the “different situations encountered.” A full 66% of them felt that active assistance in dying in the form of euthanasia should be accessible, and 72% approved of assisted suicide.
In France, euthanasia refers to the administration of a lethal agent by medical personnel, while assisted suicide is the self-administration of a lethal substance with the prior consent of a physician.
For opponents of changes to the current end-of-life law, the most worrying aspect of these discussions is the very high percentage of citizens in favor of active assistance in dying for minors. Indeed, 56% of them voted in favor of extending assisted suicide to minors under the age of 18, and 67% approve of euthanasia for minors.
The outcome of the consultation was judged “appalling” by the pro-life association Alliance Vita. In a Feb. 20 press release, the organization said that “despite the opposition of strong minorities, these votes show to what extent any legislative shift towards the so-called ‘active assistance in dying’ would involve assisted suicide and euthanasia, even for people unable to ask for it in conscience ... starting with children!”
A clear majority of the council of citizens, however, considered that access to active assistance in dying should in all cases be subject to conditions, although the report did not provide more details about such conditions.
Calling it a “turning point” in this particularly sensitive societal debate, Claire Thoury, president of the Citizens’ Convention Governance Committee, said in the introduction to the report that this first phase of deliberation was only intended to outline the broad directions of the consultation.
She said that the group would reconvene in March for a “harmonization phase,” during which more detailed proposals will be formulated and included in the final document to be submitted to the government March 19. This document should serve as the basis for the development of a new end-of-life bill.
In January 2021, a bill sponsored by the Socialist Party to expand access to euthanasia failed to pass the French Parliament due to the number of amendments from the legislation’s opposition. This citizen consultation was seen as a way to legitimize the introduction of a new bill, this time by the party of the majority presidential party, known as Renaissance or RE.
The positions adopted by the citizens’ convention confirmed the fears of those who, following the first opinion of the CCNE, feared that France would follow in the footsteps of its Belgian neighbor, whose permissive approach to end-of-life has already given rise to numerous cases of abuse. In recent years, Belgium has also approved euthanasia for several minors, the youngest of whom was 9 years old.
Macron, who made changing the end-of-life framework one of his campaign promises, declared his “penchant” for the Belgian model in April of last year.
But voices have already begun to be raised in the French political world following the publication of the conclusions of the citizens’ convention. This is the case of MEP François-Xavier Bellamy, a leading member of the center-right party Les Républicains and a self-declared Catholic, who said that this convention “represented only itself” and was not democratic.
For her part, the philosopher Chantal Delsol considered — in an opinion column published on Le Figaro — that this societal change observed in France and among its European neighbors is a symptom of a deeper cultural mutation in the West, dating back to the last half-century, and which she attributes to the erasure of the Judeo-Christian culture, to the benefit of a return to the pagan ideal.
“The ancient Greeks and Romans justified and even glorified personal or accompanied suicide,” she wrote.
Recalling that it was Judaism and then Christianity that affected a radical change in the conception of the dignity of every human life, she claimed that “the demand for active euthanasia represents a return to the situation of our distant ancestors: It is justified by the fact that our contemporaries no longer believe in substantial dignity, which used to respond to a transcendence.”
“This is a profound rupture in our cultural anthropology, which is reflected and declined in all areas of life, of which assisted suicide is one aspect,” she wrote.
The gradual cultural shift that is now affecting France is also raising concerns in the Vatican. During an audience with a group of French elected officials on the eve of the start of the national debate last October, Pope Francis urged them to oppose euthanasia and its main corollary, the “throwaway culture.”